Honestly. What could be less funny than fish? They’re cold, soundless, and dead-eyed. Wriggly metallic bars of meat. Complete aliens to us air-breathers. Plus, “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” And don’t get me started on sharks. Brrrr. No wonder H. P. Lovecraft had a gut-wrenching aversion to the little finny fiends.
And yet fish have been a mainstay of comedy for as long as we’ve been scoopin’ them out of their watery homes. They flop around in our boats, gasping for oxygen. Hilarious! Their bones get caught in a diner’s throat, causing him to choke. Uproarious! Some clown goes fly-fishing and catches a fishhook in his ass. Side-splitting! And best of all, fish work for scale! (Nyuck-nyuck.)
OK, so I can’t think of anything but pain gags right now, but that’s beside the point. I’m primarily using fish as the springboard to today’s topic – Comedy.
Making Unpredictable Associations
I read once that gifted children can be identified by their ability to make associations that other kids don’t. Here’s a brilliant example. A group of children were asked to tell an examiner what the difference was between two underwater denizens: a fish and a submarine. The natural answer is, “A fish is alive and a submarine is not.” However, when little Billy (named changed to protect the gifted) was asked what the difference was, he responded: “You put tartar sauce on one and mayo on the other.” Billy completely overstepped the underwater motif, and went straight to a food reference, finding a meaning for “sub” that was out of context. Thus, his answer was startlingly clever and funny at the same time.
That is the essence of comedy… Finding an association that is different and unpredictable… Discovering something out of context (like a rich dowager slipping on a banana peel). As humans, we stumble around the planet using as little brain power as necessary to get us from store to gas station to fast food joint. We don’t normally stretch for different or deeper meanings. It’s easier to stay within the common context of word usage. So when someone makes an association that we hadn’t thought of – the result is laughter.
My favorite example is by Douglas Adams. In his first “Hitchhiker” book, Ford Prefect warns: “You’d better be prepared for the jump into hyperspace. It’s unpleasantly like being drunk.” Arthur Dent wonders: “What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?” Ford: “Ask a glass of water.”
After a few seconds of pondering, you finally catch Adams’ new association. Not “drunk” like tipsy, but “drunk” as in swallowed down a constrictive throat! New word association – completely new (and opposite) meaning. Surprise jump from pleasant to unpleasant. Comedy!
What triggered today’s blog was a bumper sticker. We’ve all seen the two intersecting curved lines that form a simple fish silhouette. This fish drawing has been used as a religious symbol – an icon for “the fisher of men.” And if you missed the meaning, the word Jesus was usually inscribed inside the fish’s body. This bit of vehicular billboarding was followed by the amusing lungfish (same symbol but with feet) that said “Darwin” inside. And finally the Jesus fish symbol eating the Darwin fish symbol, proving once and for all that evolution theories can’t stand up to plastic car ornaments. Anyway, religious arguments aside, the public has seen these bumper fish so often that the moment we spot a fish symbol we instantly associate it with the religious/evolutionist debate.
However, today I spotted a new fish, and inside its little religious outline were the words ‘N CHIPS. I laughed out loud! For a long time! It was so refreshing to see the fish symbol stand for its original meaning… FISH! Naturally this association wouldn’t have been funny if we hadn’t been indoctrinated away from the original meaning and taught to think of the symbol in a religious way. So now the gag has a double laugh. 1) A new association for the symbol. 2) The knowledge that our society has slowly lost the true meaning of the aquatic symbol… a dang fish!
Fish Outta Water
A “fish out of water” story is a surefire comedy set-up. Someone out of their element… A goofball fraternity on an uptight campus. An 80’s kid stuck in the 1950’s. A black sheriff in an all white town. A high-pressure business woman who inherits a baby. A mermaid on dry land (literally, “fish outta water”). Again, these situations are funny because something (a person, a word, symbol) is found out of context. A new association.
And I suppose the real reason that fish are funny is because we often see them outta water. Even a photo of Uncle Lester holding a freshly-caught trout looks odd – like holding a space alien that has left its home environment and crash-landed on earth. It appears out of place.
Thus, anytime we see a fish with a human, it’s gonna be intrinsically weird — and funny. Like…
- Michael Palin and John Cleese doing the fish-slapping dance.
- A babel fish stuck in Arthur Dent’s ear.
- A Bikini Bottom (Spongebob’s town) newscaster that is simply a photo of a fish stood on its tail, reporting through an articulated mouth as if he were Walter Cronkite.
- A plaque-mounted fish that sings “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
- The Bass-o-Matic.
- The word “fish sticks.” (Are they sawed out of fish boards?)
- Kevin Kline eating Michael Palin’s fish tank collection.
- A fish necktie.
I’m sure there are dozens of other examples, but that’s all that springs to mind today. (Except for the rude association with the smell of fish – which I refuse to even mention! I’m a classy guy.)
Plus one more point…
Fish are funny because they look stupid, have short memories, and can’t fight back. Bwahahahahaha!
Bottom line: Want laughs? Take something out of context or find a new meaning for it. If you forget all my brilliant points, just think “Fish,” and you’ll be fine.